Published on March 3, 2014 | by Dorothy Spencer

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Guerilla Girls: Reinventing feminism the creative way

Guerrilla girls poster

Despite the fact that far more women choose to study art than men, women are hugely under-represented in major galleries. [Guerrillagirls.com]

The art world is full of cocks, literally speaking.

Despite the fact that far more women choose to study art than men, and despite there being a long, rich, and rewarding history of female art, women are hugely under-represented in major galleries, they earn less, and their works sell for considerably less than those by male counterparts.

The Guerilla Girls formed in 1985 in New York to address racial and sexual discrimination in the art world, embodied by an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984 entitled An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.

The exhibition, which proposed to be a survey of the most important current artists, featured works by 169 artists, of whom only 13 were female.

Since then they have taken the art world by storm, naming and shaming the worst offenders with their loud, brash and witty posters, provoking galleries, directors, politicians and art dealers with questions such as: ‘”When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?”

However, their work is by no means confined to the arts and popular culture, having tackled, among other issues, abortion rights, the Gulf War, the homeless and rape.

Anonymous

The Guerrilla Girls remain completely anonymous, accessorising all public appearances with their trademark primate masks, worn proudly and loudly.

They never reveal their identities, instead assuming the names of dead female artists. Guerilla Girls is entirely female, with men being welcome to support the group but not made official members.

Perhaps their most infamous poster campaign is the Metropolitan Museum one, featuring the body of Ingre’s Grande Odalisque.

Her fair head replaced with that of a gorilla’s, it proclaims, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”, bringing attention to the fact that while there is a plethora of nude female forms on display, there are not so many women being represented for their artwork.

Using humour and fierce visuals to bring attention to discrimination in art, film, popular culture and politics, they can be seen as part of a wider female activism movement that uses knowledge of how the media works to bring attention to their campaigns.

By showing that feminists can be funny, Guerilla Girls attempt to transform feminism into something that can actually be enjoyable to be a part of, rather than a humourless commitment to staying to hairy and militant – an important step forward if we wish to erase the phrase “I’m not a feminist but…” from our public discourse.

Effective

They continue to conduct research into art collections, and their most effective banners and campaigns have come out of statistics that just can’t be ignored, such as the fact that the US Senate is a more progressive place than Hollywood, with 14 per cent of senators female, compared to four per cent female Hollywood movie directors.

They have published several books including The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art and Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerilla Girls’ Guide to Female Stereotypes, and they make public appearances around the world.

In a sweet sort of irony, some of the galleries initially targeted by the Guerilla Girls now own works by them, including Moma and the Tate, who hold 30 works by the group, some of which can be seen in their ongoing States of Flux exhibition.

To find out more about how the Guerilla Girls have been transforming feminism, Arts London News spoke to a group member who calls herself Käthe Kollwitz:

ALN: Why do you feel the art industries lag behind other industries in equality for women, racial minorities and the working class, and what are the barriers preventing people who aren’t white middle class males?

KK: Wow. We wrote an entire book about that (The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art).

There are so many reasons — way too many for one interview — but one is that society’s image of the “genius” artist is still male. Another is that viewers don’t see enough art by women in museums and galleries to challenge what they’ve been taught.

Another reason is that super-rich art collectors, who donate works of art to museums, tend to buy art that reflects their own prejudices about what art is.

The world of artists is great, but the system sucks.

Do you see yourselves as part of a wider tradition of female activism and do you feel a kinship with other high-profile groups such as Pussy Riot and Femen?

We are so inspired by the strength and conviction of Pussy Riot! They have not been intimidated by their prison experience, as Putin hoped. Instead, it has made them fearless.

Femen flips around the way the media uses nudity to objectify women by using their own nudity to express their own power.

We support all feminist activist groups and think the world needs lots more of them. We believe in creative complaining.

Finally, you often talk of reinventing feminism. Why does it need re-inventing?

We think everyone should use the F word – Feminism.

It’s crazy that so many people who believe in the tenets of feminism — human rights including education for women worldwide, reproductive rights, freedom from sexual abuse and exploitation — still stop short of calling themselves feminists.

Women’s rights, civil rights, lesbian, gay, bi and trans rights are the great human rights movements of our time.

Feminism has changed the world, revolutionised human thought and has given many women lives their great grandmothers could never have imagined. Even the most repressive nations in the world have feminists, bravely speaking up or quietly working for women.

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